Addressing environmental and poverty alleviation trade-offs: experts encourage better social and ecological assessments


Outcomes of the stakeholder event and public lecture in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Organised by the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS), BRAC University Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research (C3ER), and the global interdisciplinary research programme, ESPA – the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) outreach event on 20 March 2018 began with a public lecture that highlighted ESPA’s work with decision makers and natural resource users over the past nine years.  ESPA has sponsored a total of six research projects in Bangladesh, both in coastal and urban settings, to acquire the evidence required by policy makers to address the dual challenges of sustainable ecosystem management and poverty reduction, which often result in trade-offs.

Summarising ESPA’s work, Dr. Atiq Rahman, Executive Director of Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) and Co-Chair of the International Programme Advisory Committee (IPAC) of ESPA said, “The poor people and communities largely depend on the ecosystem, its resources and services.  Judicious use of ecosystems can reduce poverty while ill-considered use such as deforestation, hindering river flows, and polluting the atmosphere undermine the efforts of communities to achieve poverty reduction, human wellbeing and their entitlements to ecosystem services.”  

The ESPA Deltas project, an ambitious, interdisciplinary study to understand the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta ecosystem, focused on the Bangladesh coastal region, and the lives of the millions of people who depend on its services. ESPA research has confirmed that this region, where the rural poor already feel the negative impacts of salinity intrusion in soils and drinking water on their health and livelihoods, has become a ‘danger zone’ whereby active measures are necessary to avert ecological collapse and protect human lives.

The ESPA Deltas team has worked with the Bangladesh Planning Commission for the past year to assess the diverse impacts of development interventions being considered as part of the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100.  These options include: a new coastal ‘greenbelt’ buffer along the southern exposed coast; a new sea wall to protect against cyclones; and a new network of polders to enhance agriculture.  While the new polder system seems most beneficial for reducing poverty, the trade-off will be a higher risk of flooding in nearby regions. These trade-offs will require further evaluation to assist government decision making in both short-term and long-term planning processes.

As ESPA’s Director Kate Schreckenberg explained, “We need better social and ecological assessments of decision-making over natural resources, to paint a clear picture of who benefits and who bears the costs of environmental decisions. Trade-offs and any potential human costs must be understood and explicitly addressed through open, just and democratic processes. The ESPA approach is not easy but it is exciting and offers promise for the future.”

A stakeholder engagement event, bringing together policy makers, practitioners, researchers, development partners and decision-makers will take place on the second day of the event, to discuss the findings of the Deltas project, and how the insights and approach from ESPA’s work more generally can be used going forward to inform policy and practice in Bangladesh.

Key policy messages and insights from ESPA’s research programme include:

•        Environmentally-related policies and programmes will inevitably carry implications for human wellbeing, and may even bear hidden human costs – unless there is due assessment and care.

•        The architects of development policies and programmes that access and use environmental resources are largely failing to consider how these interventions will affect society’s most vulnerable and resource-dependent people. This is equally the case for policies and programmes that have environmental conservation as their primary goal, such as protected areas and carbon sequestration projects, and for ‘development first’ interventions such as those that focus on land-use intensification.

•        It is essential for decision-makers to identify, in specific localities, how services provided by the ecosystems sustain local people’s lives and wellbeing, so that these benefits are not inadvertently harmed or destroyed. ESPA’s science urges decision-makers to consider the needs of society’s most vulnerable and marginalised people when it comes to the design and delivery of policies and programmes based on environmental resources.

•        The good news is that well-designed interventions can reward local people for actions that simultaneously (a) yield environmental benefits (that accrue locally, regionally and globally across scales) and (b) increase the flows of social, cultural and economic benefits to local people.

•        The ESPA-Deltas project is a good example of a collaboration between multiple stakeholders to understand the complex social-ecological system of the Bangladesh delta and model possible scenarios of how the region might develop in the future, paying particular attention to how possible policy decisions could affect different social groups and provision of a range of benefits from the environment. Tools like this can help governments take more informed decisions that will ensure a safe and just future for their citizens.

Two officials from the Bangladesh Planning Commission were among the 49 passengers tragically killed during the US-Bangla plane crash at Tribhuvan Airport in Nepal on March 12, 2018.  Ms. Nazia Afrin Chowdhury and Ms. Umme Salma were heading to the Regional Symposium on Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) in Kathmandu on board the fatal flight.  Both the symposium and the two-day ESPA knowledge-sharing event in Dhaka, from March 20-21, 2018, which they were also due to attend, were dedicated to these individuals who lost their lives.


Editor’s Notes:

About Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS)

The Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS) is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental, policy, research and implementation institute working on Sustainable Development (SD) at local, national, regional and global levels.  It was established in 1986 and over 30 years has grown to become a leading research institute in the non-governmental sector in Bangladesh and South Asia.

BCAS encourages multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary in its approaches to running programs and projects by working under four broad themes: Environment-development integration, Good governance and people’s participation, Poverty alleviation and sustainable livelihoods, Economic growth and public-private partnership.  BCAS has over a hundred full-time and some part-time staff working in different capacities with a large group of senior professionals and scientist, and many mid-level professionals and researchers.

About BRAC University Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research (C3ER)

Since its inception, BRAC University has conducted a series of cross-sectoral research on climate change and disaster management in direct collaboration with BRAC.  To coordinate and manage these different activities, the Syndicate and the Board of Trustees of BRAC University have accorded for the establishment of a research centre titled “Centre for Climate Change and Environmental Research (C3ER)”.  The Centre establishes a synergy between BRACU and BRAC in the field of climate change and other environmental issues.

The centre also maintains partnerships with other national and international organisations as appropriate.  Resources and expertise available in the departments, schools and institutes of the university have been mobilized in the field pertinent to adaptation and mitigation.  Special attention is given to research in the area of adverse impact of climate change on health, food security, poverty and livelihood, displacement and migration, loss and damage assessment, renewable energy, negotiation process, technology transfer, education and awareness.  In addition to this, C3ER arranged a number of trainings and public lectures on climate change and disaster management in association with other departments of BRAC University.

About Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA)

ESPA is a global interdisciplinary research programme that aims to give decision-makers and natural resource users the evidence they need to address the challenges of sustainable ecosystem management and poverty reduction.  ESPA is supported by the UK Government’s Department for International Development, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council. ESPAs key objectives are:

•        To create a strong research and evidence base on the connections among ecosystem services, their dynamics and management, human use and pathways to sustainable poverty reduction;

•        To develop innovative, interdisciplinary research and methodologies, delivering tools and approaches that enable decision-makers to simulate and predict socio-ecological responses to complex social and economic trends;

•        To engage and communicate effectively with policy makers, practitioners and decision makers so that ESPA’s research is well understood and used;

•        To enhance the capacity of researchers in the global South to conduct, lead, use and communicate high quality ESPA-type interdisciplinary research, including through effective international research partnerships.


In the past nine years, the GBP 43.9 million ESPA programme involved 922 researchers in generating world class evidence; half of the researchers came from developing countries. Access more than 1,200 publications and explore ESPA’s research results and key lessons learned on our website: